Tridivesh Singh Maini' Blog

Can Dr Singh salvage his reputation?

May 23, 2013

One sphere where the Congress led dispensation in New Delhi – which has completed nine years in office -- has performed reasonably well is the realm of foreign policy. This assertion is borne out by a number of points. Firstly, Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh has been bold and pragmatic in reaching out to Pakistan, much to the chagrin of hawks in India – including many in his party.


Second, he has also kept the relationship with Tehran intact, while ensuring that ties with Washington do not get affected too much. Finally, during the course of his interaction with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during the latter’s visit to New Delhi – which happened to be his first – the Indian PM made it clear, that while India wanted cordial relations with China, it would be impossible to make substantial progress in their bilateral ties, until territorial disputes are concerned.


Yet, foreign policy can not be de hyphenated from domestic politics. The fact that Manmohan Singh’s second term in office has been an absolute disaster with the economy dipping and corruption peaking has quite naturally had its impact on New Delhi’s foreign policy. To make matters worse, the pulls and pressures of coalition politics have taken their toll on foreign policy issues, especially those pertaining to India’s neighborhood. All these factors have not only dented the India story, but also reduced the scope for Dr Manmohan Singh to take any bold and pragmatic decisions as he had done in the 1st term when he risked his government for going ahead with the Indo-US nuclear deal.


It would be naïve and in correct to assume that all is lost, as a consequence of this paralysis in New Delhi. Many pro-business Chief Ministers have been reaching out to the outside world, and projecting not only their own states but the potential of India as a whole. Gujarat CM and likely Prime Ministerial candidate of the opposition BJP, Narendra Modi, visited Japan last year, and also invited a number of ambassadors and other foreign delegates to the Vibrant Gujarat summit in January. Other state governments too have been playing their part in foreign policy by reaching out to the neighbors -- especially Pakistan. Some prominent examples being Bihar Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, who many believe is a Prime Ministerial aspirant and Sukhbir Singh Badal, Deputy Chief Minister of Punjab. Both Kumar and Badal led successful delegations to Pakistan last year and explored the possibility of greater cooperation.


Yet, foreign policy is a central subject, and while states can and should connect with the outside world – especially in the cultural and economic domain – they can only supplement New Delhi’s efforts and not substitute or act on its behalf. Leadership -- not dictation -- has to come from New Delhi.


With only a year to go for the polls, and the UPA in doldrums, it is unlikely that things will drastically change. There is no doubt, that on certain fronts, New Delhi is playing its cards well. For example, the PM’s visits to Japan and the US are astute moves which send a clear message to China, that India is no push over. Similarly, with an eye on post-2014 Afghanistan and to counter Chinese investment in Gwadar (Pakistan) India is investing heavily in the Chabahar Port in Iran.


There are certain issues on which Dr Singh’s government is constrained. Firstly as far as giving further momentum to ties with Washington is concerned not much can be expected. For if Dr Singh attempts to do so it will be labeled as kowtowing to the US, by not only the Left, but the opposition BJP as well. It is highly unlikely, that the regime in New Delhi will have the ability to reach out to Pakistan. This is unfortunate, since the new Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, has shown his inclination for cementing ties with India.


Yet, Dr Manmohan Singh needs to realize that time is running out not only for his government, but also the India story. He needs to send a clear unequivocal message, that while his government may have got bogged down by corruption cases he is still willing to take some risks – in economic and foreign policy -- which are in the long term interests of the country, the region and the world. This will not only give him another chance to salvage his battered reputation but also his country’s.


While the world is closely watching political developments in New Delhi, it can not keep on waiting indefinitely for the political scenario to stabilize. New Delhi has to take charge itself, and even minor successes in the economic and foreign policy could ensure that Dr Singh’s legacy is reasonable if not remarkable. 

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